Posted by Shane Stapleton

We look back to the 70s to see how Tony Hanahoe helped change the culture of Dublin football from fiasco to champions

Tony Hanahoe

We look back to the 70s to see how Tony Hanahoe helped change the culture of Dublin football from fiasco to champions...

There’s not much in Gaelic football that Tony Hanahoe (pictured before the 1977 final with Armagh) has not done. Besides being a crucial element to the legacy of an exciting Dublin-Kerry era, where he was a manager, coach, captain and player, he was also one of the first players to go head-to-head with the GAA. As with most players though, it all began with an early affinity and fascination with the game and the Mecca of the sport, Croke Park.

“Well I lived in Clontarf,” he said in Laochra Gael. “I used to get the bus in or walk in as far as Fairview, and I’d walk up Clonliffe Avenue. Normally, what I do remember is that I’d be there even before the gates had opened.”

Watching Dublin and other teams from around the country might have been priority, but he got to see some other superstars in the famous old ground too. “Well one of the most impressive athletes I ever saw, irrespective of what game was being played here, was 1972 when I saw Muhammad Ali fight here in Croke Park. He fought a guy called Al ‘Blue’ Lewis and he was a very impressive athlete at that time.”

Jimmy Keaveney, who regularly made his way to Croke Park with Hanahoe, spotted the potential of his former teammate from an early age: “Well Tony from the age of 12 up, you could see he had star quality whether it was football or hurling, and he was an exceptionally good hurler as well, like he played inter-county hurling for Dublin as well. 

“But you always knew he was a winner, he was a leader. And from the day I met him, even up to now, that’s the way I feel about him and that’s the impression he’d give anybody.” 

Certainly, a leader is what Dublin needed. They had been at an extremely low ebb when Hanahoe came in and, as he points out, it took time to sway the tide: “I remember playing in the early ’70s when, I suppose, we played games and there would have been 1,000 supporters.” 

“Nobody was really interested and training was a fiasco, and we just went out and fulfilled the fixture for Dublin,” added Keaveney. “But there was no real interest in it. I remember [corner-back] Gay O’Driscoll would say you’d be afraid to say you played with Dublin. Oh I played with Vincent’s all right, but you’d be afraid to say you played with Dublin. The standard was that bad.”

O’Driscoll repeats the sentiment in GAA: An Oral History, but it seems both he and Keaveney were purveyors of it: “I remember in the early ’70s, we lost to Kildare in the first round of the championship. I was sitting with Jimmy Keaveney in the bus back and he said to me that he would get an awful slagging from one of his mates at work the following day.

“I thought to myself at least nobody knew that I was playing for Dublin because I never told anyone about it, nor would I ever admit I played for Dublin.”

And so, in stepped Kevin Heffernan – also of the St Vincent’s club – in 1974 with a tough new training regime. Heffo’s Army was ready to march. They started the year with a win over Louth and then faced 1971 and ’72 All Ireland champions Offaly in the Leinster quarter-final. The Faithful County had also won four of the last five provincial crowns, but this new Dublin side announced its arrival with a 1-04 to 1-03 victory.

“That [win] was when our really great run began,” said O’Driscoll. “I will never, ever forget that tingling sensation that went down my back. It was like a premonition that great things were in store for us. Nothing in sport, not even the All-Ireland finals, compared with that moment.

A weight had been lifted somewhat and crucial to their victory, and indeed the upturn of Dublin’s fortunes, was the positioning and usage of Tony Hanahoe at centre-forward. While most forwards primary function is to score and threaten to opposition’s goal, Hanahoe was there as a tool to thwart, upset and pull apart their rivals’ defensive shape. The Brogans, Mullins and Morans of that world then had space to bomb up through the centre.

“It was a lonely plan, as it turned out,” Hanahoe says. “I spent many lonely days – the idea was that I was to open up the defence and I was to be available as the hitman. Mine was kind of a negative role to take out the opposition centre half-back and leave a big hole down the middle of the defence.

“It was a lonely role, I’m not too sure I’d ever do it again. But it was done at the time and it succeeded for about six years.”

Keaveney certainly appreciated the hard work of his teammate: “We tried a lot of people at it, we couldn’t do it. I wasn’t disciplined enough to rule myself out of the game for the sake of the team, but Tony was. Like Tony did it to a tee and everybody knew what he was doing but they weren’t able to cop onto it.”

In the All-Ireland final of 1974 against Galway, Hanahoe took centre-back Tommy Joe Gilmore on a tour of Croke Park. Neither player saw much of the ball over the course of the game, but it was job done for the Dublin man. His county had a first Sam Maguire title since 1963.

“It was kind of unbelievable that we actually won it. I remember one time being down in the Four Courts, and as you know there are a lot of policemen in the Four Courts, and one orderly said to me: ‘You hardly think, Tony, Dublin are going to be in the All-Ireland final.’ And it was humorous, you know, because we didn’t.” 

That win though, was all a precursor to the great Dublin-Kerry rivalry; Heffo against Mick O’Dwyer. Between them, the two counties would be involved in 13 All Ireland finals from 1974 until 1986 inclusive, and they would meet in the championship for six successive years.

Dublin had won it in 1974 but Kerry wrested the title away the following year. “After the final in ’75, there is no doubt we were very disappointed and, I would say, almost immediately we began to plan and train for the All-Ireland final in 1976.” The planning paid off: Hanahoe got the first score in the 1976 final, after latching onto a beautiful Keaveney drop-kicked pass, and Dublin took back their title.

Former Meath manager Sean Boylan detailed the impact of the Dublin captain: “The command and respect Tony had from his fellow players was amazing. Some people ran away from responsibility; he loved responsibility.

"And when Kevin Heffernan became unwell, you know, the way he stepped into the breach and ran the squad and ran the team…” Indeed, Hanahoe was just 28 years of age when he fellow players nudged him into the hot seat in November 1976. 

“The team were behind my nomination to take over as manager… It was a very close-knit group and the introduction of an outsider just wouldn’t have worked, so it had to be an insider. It could have been a poisoned chalice; it could have been an opportunity. I didn’t get any time to think about it, and I – well I just took it and said yes, okay, I was prepared to do it… It put extreme pressure on me. 

“After we beat Kerry in the semi-final [of 1977 to reach the final with Armagh], our great danger was that people would sit back and say: ‘well that’s it, we’ve won now.’ I remember working very hard to keep the team in control and keep their feet on the ground. And remind them that we had to play Armagh, we had to beat Armagh, and the title wasn’t won until we had beaten Armagh.

“When we took the field that day, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was very relieved when the game was over and we had won it.” 

Dublin won by 5-12 to 3-06, and Hanahoe sealed his place among a select band of players to have lifted the Sam Maguire Cup in two successive years (1976 and ’77): Roscommon’s Jimmy Murray (1943 and ’44), Cavan’s Joe O’Reilly (1947 and ’48), Mayo’s Sean Flanagan (1950 and ’51), Galway’s Enda Colleran (1965 and ’66), and Kerry’s Declan O’Sullivan (2006 and ’07). 

Dublin’s rivalry with the Kingdom continued and the champions lost the 1978 All-Ireland final thanks, in part, to that iconic Mikey Sheehy goal which looped over goalkeeper Paddy Cullen and into the net.

Hanahoe, in an interview with Vincent Browne, lashed out at the decision to allow the goal and that he felt referee Seamus Aldridge was biased against Dublin. “I said it because I meant it, and I was suspended.” But Hanahoe, in sheer defiance, decided to play a game the following day, and received a further six-month suspension from the GAC. That was seven in total.

“Eventually Central Council overruled the management committee, as I understand it, and I was reduced back to a month’s suspension. It wasn’t the end of it, but that was the end of it officially anyway.” 

Hanahoe decided to retire from inter-county football in 1979, after playing in and overseeing a golden age of Gaelic football in Dublin, and Ireland as a whole.

Sean Boylan, from the other side of the Meath-Dublin fence, summed up Hanahoe’s importance to Dublin: “He would sacrifice himself to create the space or create the opportunity from somebody to achieve success, and he would do anything to achieve success. There was a steel in him, and a heart in him, that you had to have to survive.”

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